Chen Shui-bian, the imprisoned former president of the Republic of China in-exile, was released on Jan. 5 for a month of medical parole, at which time his case will be reevaluated. Chen was head of the ROC from 2000 to 2008 and has been imprisoned since shortly after leaving office. Chen’s release has gained international headlines yet few of the news reports give an accurate account of events with many instead portraying a corrupt politician being granted leniency by benevolent prison officials.
Further, Chinese spin doctors are hard at work as evidenced by an article in the South China Morning Post which analyses the political impact of Chen’s parole. According to the newspaper, the parole will either help the ruling Kuomintang party by showing its compassion or splinter the Democratic Progressive Party by creating factions. In reality, a revolution to replace the ROC is going on in Taiwan and Chen’s release from prison is proof that the public can make change happen.
The Taiwan revolution is not using bullets or bombs, however, the struggle for a national identity is not without hardship and suffering. A much younger Chen Shui-bian was a political prisoner during the ROC martial law period as part of the free speech movement advocating democracy.
Chen’s more recent imprisonment of the last six years included a long stretch in a tiny punishment cell. Chen was forced to share a small, windowless cell, devoid of any furniture, not even a bed. Twenty-four hour harsh lighting, round-the-clock confinement, no flush toilet, and meals shoved through a slot on the floor where Chen’s daily routine. Worse yet, Chen was also denied medical treatment for a long period of time. Then prison doctors gave Chen psychotropic medication without his knowledge to reduce his complaints.
Broken in health and spirit, Chen was released only after his former vice-president, Annette Lu, undertook a hunger strike last week until she had to be hospitalized. The ROC Ministry of Justice claims the decision was based on medical assessments. However, Chen’s doctors have been calling for his release for months but were ignored.
Chen Shui-bian may not have even been guilty of any crime. When Chen was charged with corruption his public support collapsed and his political friends shunned him. Few paid attention to the actual details of the allegations against him. Over time, all but one charge has been dismissed by appeal and in the remaining case the chief witness has recanted admitting to perjury.
Chen’s controversial trial was a miscarriage of justice marred by selective media leaks. Often held after midnight, with strict limits on public observers, Chen was heckled in the courtroom by political opponents. Denied a jury trial, denied the randomly assigned judge, Chen was also mocked in a Law Day skit by his prosecutors at a judicial holiday party. The hand-picked judge that convicted Chen was the same judge who cleared Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou, when Ma was investigated for corruption.
Ma Ying-jeou, who has kept Chen in jail, is a polar opposite of Chen Shui-bian. Under martial law Chen was a political prisoner, while Ma was dictator Chiang Ching-kuo’s personal translator. Published photos of Chen frequently show a friendly smile and a wave, while Ma is often pictured with a stern look on his face and a clenched fist.
The central difference between the two men is over China. Chen Shui-bian, born on Taiwan, seeks independence for the island. Ma Ying-jeou, who seeks unification with China, claims he was born in Hong Kong. But Ma’s homeland is in question, because on his daughter’s birth certificate in the United States, Ma stated he was born in China.
Other evidence of a peaceful revolution was the Sunflower Movement, a student takeover of the Legislative Yaun chambers last year. The Sunflowers were motivated by Ma’s attempt to rush through service agreements with the People’s Republic of China and because of public support they occupied the ROC government building for weeks.
The November election of Ko Wen-je as mayor of Taipei is another example of Taiwan’s revolution. Ko, a respected doctor, stepped into the political arena because of Ma’s treatment of Chen. The mayorship of Taipei was a stepping stone to the ROC presidency for both Chen and Ma. Ko is a volunteer member of an independent medical team that became concerned when Chen was denied medical care in prison and is now positioned to help determine the national future of Taiwan.
While Ko and Chen’s popularity has risen, Ma’s public support has continued to plummet leaving him with single digit support numbers in opinion polls. Support of Ko and Chen comes from Ko’s reputation for honesty and independence while Chen has become a living martyr for Taiwan because of his suffering.
The steady growth of a Taiwanese identity on the island comes despite a constant media campaign, indoctrination in the schools, and Kuomintang money to create a Chinese identity. Threats by the PRC to invade Taiwan and official discouragement by the United States are the only things that have kept the independence movement in check. Constant efforts by the PRC to rename the island Chinese Taipei and the Republic of China in-exile to hold on to its caretaker role have not been able to cap the rising sense of Taiwanese identity.
The United States imposed the ROC on Taiwan when it was Japanese territory and commonly called Formosa. Cold War politics have kept the island locked in a political purgatory. The United States policy on Taiwan has been described as a “strategic ambiguity” and has kept the international status of the island in limbo since World War II.
The crowds that showed up at the prison to witness Chen’s release and cheer his freedom are evidence that change is going to come. The happy throng was so thick that it took Chen’s motorcade ten minutes to clear the prison. The opening of the prison door was not a humanitarian gesture by Ma Ying-jeou, it was forced on him. The revolution is underway.
Taiwan Policy Examiner
January 6, 2015